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Southwark Family Memories of WWII

by Blue Anchor Library, Bermondsey, London

Contributed by 
Blue Anchor Library, Bermondsey, London
People in story: 
Fred Newman
Location of story: 
Southwark and Gibraltar
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
05 April 2004

This story was submitted to the People's War site by Marion McLaren of Southwark Libraries on behalf of Fred Newman and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

Southwark Family Memories of WWII

by Fred Newman

In the days before the start of World War II, under the supervision of my father who was incapacitated, my two brothers who were aged twelve and fourteen and myself aged sixteen, dug out the earth in our back yard and put in the Anderson shelter – our cousin who lived with us also helped until he was called up to join shore gun batteries near Lyme Regis. On the day Neville Chamberlain said that we were at war with Germany, Dad, with his experience of gas warfare in WWI, told us to fill our long galvanised bath with water and put by its side enough blankets to cover every window, each one of which had already been criss-crossed with transparent masking tape. The air raid siren sounded just after the Prime Minister’s broadcast and my brothers and I set to soaking the blankets and putting them up at the windows. I think that we were shaking with fright and near to tears Mum and Dad putting a brave face on things. Thankfully, it was a false alarm. A week or so later both my brothers were evacuated to Seaford – neither wanted to go – luckily they were billeted in a mansion and very well looked after. Unfortunately, the owner of the mansion fell ill and my brothers were re-housed - both had to work for their keep, the younger having to collect and chop wood for the fires and clear and clean the grates etc. and the elder had to work on paper rounds and give up the money. After a while they plucked up courage and , unbeknown to the householders, sent a message home saying “Come and fetch us home straight away or we will run away and walk home”. Mum and Dad had to make sure that their gas masks and suitcases came with them. The elder brother eventually gave up a university place to become a Paratrooper. A Green - a stick fracture made him drop out to become a Medic (still having to drop from the sky) in National Service. I worked at an engineer firm and had to join their fire watching team, and with a team mate had to take a turn at the top of the building fending off the incendiary bombs (from parts of the roof) with long handled shovels and sticks. I also joined the “Home Guard” – we had manoeuvres around the streets of Southwark, using ‘half bricks’ as substitute ‘hand grenades’. We had rifle practice at Bisley. Sad to say I was not a good shot which was confirmed when I joined the Navy as H.O. when the officer thought me so bad that I must have had a faulty rifle. Fortunately, I finally served in the Navy as a Wireless Telegraphist - some time in 1941 I think. When the Elephant and Castle was bombed, I had to go into Guy’s Hospital to have my appendicitis taken care of. The nurse who removed the clips after my operation was Haile Salassie’s daughter. When back on home guard duty our patrol went, we thought, to assist an old man who’s house had just been holed, as it turned out, by an unexploded bomb. He, thinking that we wanted to loot his house, chased us out branding a big carving knife. The cousin who was in the Gun Battery in Lyme Regis had to act as cook when the main cooking staff all went down with the ‘flu. The Commanding Officer had arranged a special dinner party in the Officers’ Mess and my cousin had to cope without assistance. The Orderly Officer decided that the pudding should be plum duff and custard. Reading the instructions which said “a pinch of salt” but knowing that many portions were required, three handfuls of salt were put in. Tasting same proved to be horrendous so a large tin of cocoa was added to mask the taste. Expecting to be placed on charge when he was summoned to the Commanding Officer’s presence, my cousin was surprised to be asked for the recipe so that it could be passed on to the C.O.’s wife! Likewise, on the way home from the Med on an ocean-going mine sweeper, Jaunty said “Sparks, you will be cook tomorrow”. “Sparks don’t cook” said I. “He does on this ship, we all take our turn except the Captain and me” says Jaunty , and “”we want stew and dumplings”. That stumped me. I could cook the meat, etc., but dumplings – I did not get the mixture right so they finished up as hard as bullets and they bounced off the bulkhead when the crew missed when throwing them at me, as we went through the Bay of Biscay.

Whilst based on the Rock of Gibraltar, a member of our watch was fighting in the final bout of the Navy Boxing Championships so the Duty Watch and those on jankers, had to be his sparring partner for one round each. I was about the third round in, absolutely scared of ‘Taffy’. After prancing about for a while, I stuck my left arm out – palm outwards – and ‘Taffy’ put his chin on it when rushing in and rocketed backwards. Recovering, he was livid. It took about six matelots to hold him down whilst I hid until he calmed down again. Duty Watch also had to ‘ditch the gash’ and that was a task because all of the dustbin residue had to be ditched into the sea. To do this we had to take turns in carrying the dustbin along the top of the concrete sewage pipe, down one ladder to avoid the square vent (the top plate of which had been torn away in a storm and not replaced) and back up a ladder further along the sewage pipe, walk along to its end out in the sea, carrying the dustbin all the time. It was a nuisance, but orders were orders. All new additions had to be made aware of the rule, but one particular bloke decided that it would be much quicker to jump down onto what looked like a concrete vent cover, which was, in fact, sun baked excrement. He went straight down only saving himself from total emersion by spreading his arms out wide. We had to draw lots to recover him – it was the short straw loser’s job to do it – what a pong! He was escorted back for ablutions leaving a trail of footprint xx!x!x, and scrubbed with hot water and gray Lysol liquid and then made to smell respectable again with lashings of scented talcum powder. That experience taught him a never to be forgotten lesson! Duty Watch also had to clean the Wren’s quarters loos, and, being the Rock of Gibraltar, all channelling was on the narrow side and was often blocked – ‘nuff said! Another part of Duty Watch duties was to climb up the wooden signal towers on the very top of the Rock and tighten up all the bolts and nuts which became loose during the heat and the levant (a moister cloud which formed by colder clouds circling the hot rock top). I could not get my body into the topmost parts of the wooden towers (did not want to, either, because from that height the ships in the bay looked like toys). So I made a swap of that part with someone who wanted a safe seat on the lorry that careered up and down the roads. Drivers were not allowed to use hooters or horns and had to bang the side of their cabs to warn of the approach. Spanish people were allowed to come onto the Rock in the morning to work and go back at curfew time! Most Gibraltarian women and children were relocated in England etc. for duration of the war. Signal reception on the Rock was, at times, hazardous – not so bad though when ‘Old Stripey’ used to rattle the sides of the Nissen huts to get us awake in the mornings before turning the bunks upside down, or when the destroyers dropped depth charges in the bay to ward off midget subs from the sunken Italian ship from the Algecira’s side of the bay.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Southwark Family Memories of WWII

Posted on: 29 April 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Hi Fred

What a fine story! It had me laughing quite a few times at your antics in the ring and in the sewer.

I think that nurse was pulling your leg though, 'Haile Selassie's daughter'.

His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie (as he was styled) had three daughters: Princess Romane Worq, Princess Tenage Worq, and
Princess Tsehai Haile-Selassie. It is highly unlikely that the Emperor would have permitted any of his daughters to work in a hospital as a nurse. It would have also presented security problems for the British government as both France and Britain considered him to be the lawful head of state of Ethiopia.

Still, it is a strange world and I do hope I am wrong in this.

Kindest regards,


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